Are We Using the “Right” Building Products and Materials?

Posted by Mike Collignon

Aug 26, 2013 2:28:00 PM

In the past 10 years or so, green building product availability and technology has increased along with the revision of energy efficiency codes. Unfortunately, there seems to be a disconnect in the coordination of available information for specifiers, code authors and code officials. This disconnect becomes more apparent when conflicts arise between unique building code requirements and energy code requirements. Add to the above a project attempting to meet green certification and a designer or builder may end up spending precious time and fees researching all of the variables.

An Architect’s View

As a practicing architect, an inspector for residential green building programs and a HERS rater candidate, I’ve had the opportunity to have real-life experience with these issues. Wearing many hats and owning a small business means time is at a premium. Reliable resources that can reduce research time are very valuable.

Three Missing Links

Sometimes clients have requested a specific product that they have identified as “green,” and want it incorporated into their project. Unfortunately, three key pieces of information are usually overlooked from the client side; appropriateness of installation, source of a manufacturer’s claims, and, if certification is being pursued, where the product fits within the respective residential green building program.

Example of appropriateness of installation
There are many carpets now available with recycled content, the green label designation or even both. Unfortunately, some clients only focus on the sustainable characteristics, or the “points,” rather than how a product is to be used or its durability. Conflict arises when someone wants to install a product, such as carpet, in a kitchen where the potential for poor indoor air quality then goes beyond just regular cooking odors. Durability of the product in such a setting is also questionable.

Example of manufacturer’s claims
If I had a dollar for every time a product rep came into my office to present to the design team and made unsubstantiated claims in regards to sustainability, I’d be able to retire. I even had one flooring rep claim that recycled content material was inferior to products made from “virgin” materials. That being said, my biggest complaint is that I’ve been told that if the design team specifies a product, the project will get “points” for a particular residential green building program. Lately, though, product reps have simply just presented a brochure outlining program applicability.

What I must do, then, is strive to discover the source of the product research. Was it the marketing department? Was it a third-party organization? Is there an impartial organization that has installed and explored the long-term performance of the product? These are very real questions that need real answers in order to make real decisions. Integrity of the information is extremely important. In the next issue of the quarterly report, the Green Builder® Coalition plans on expanding the concept of manufacturer’s claims and the legal ramifications.

Example of certifications
Also as an architect, I am responsible for specifying products and assemblies that meet the codes. At the same time, often the same products and assemblies must also meet a “green” standard or the requirements of a residential green building program for the project to receive certification and/or government funding. Critical time is often spent cross-referencing the building code, energy code, the assembly label, the residential green building program requirements, and on occasion, government funding requirements. Ideally, there would be reliable sources that have already done such research—then a design team could just focus on the most stringent aspects of all these considerations knowing full well that the resulting solution will meet the requirements.

An Inspector’s View

When green building programs and HERS ratings come into play, issues become much more code dependent. Interactions with code officials who are not fully familiar with updated energy codes or technologies can easily sabotage energy efficiency. Two excellent examples of this situation have arisen in the past year.

One project in the Chicago metro area encountered problems when the code official would not accept fire-safe caulk and foam for penetrations. The person insisted on the installation of a loose mineral wool, stating that it was more fire resistant than foam. For building science specialists like me, this instantly raised two red flags. First, the decision was being made based on perceived fire resistance of individual materials instead of how they actually perform as a part of a building component assembly. Second, knowing that air is the enemy for energy efficiency, loose fibrous insulation would do absolutely nothing to stop airflow or prevent series leakage from the unconditioned spaces. If you can’t stop airflow, you can’t stop energy loss.

Another project in Michigan encountered a code official that didn’t understand the technologies that were being used for ASHRAE 62.2 whole-house ventilation. The project was using an HRV to meet the constant ventilation requirement, as the home was tightly constructed. Ironically, the code official required a hole to the outdoors be cut into the wall of the mechanical room to make sure that the project had fresh air—completely defeating the tightness and energy efficiency of the home, not to mention introducing freezing cold air into the mechanical room where there were exposed water pipes. When tested, the home did achieve 2.2 ACH 50, but probably would have performed better.

Fixing the Flow

There probably isn’t any one single item that can solve all of these issues regarding information flow. From my personal perspective as a specifier, having comprehensive building component assembly and product databases with performance and durability characteristics evaluated by trustworthy third parties would be invaluable. Also, having building component assemblies and their accompanying performance information easily integrated into energy evaluation software would be a timesaver.

It would be extremely helpful if ALL building products were tested as a part of a rated building component assembly rather than as an individual product. Realistically, how often is a building product not integrated within a building? If manufacturers do go through the effort of utilizing third-party testing, perhaps presenting the data and information as part of a rated building component assembly and where it fits within building/energy codes would be much more useful than where it fits within a certification program. Manufacturers could also emphasize in their product information that the testing results are either based on a specific installation or building component assembly and that the manufacturer will not warranty if their product is installed contrary to the stated testing method.

Lastly, testing services could also help by couching their results in terms of applicability, and working with manufacturers to have their products tested as a part of building component assembly. Too often, specifiers and code officials get caught up in the flame-spread rating of a particular product without knowing the method by which the product was tested. Common testing is done in a standalone situation using the Steiner Tunnel test. This test is primarily used to investigate fire propagation along a continuous horizontal surface. It does not measure fire resistance of building component assemblies (passage of flame from one compartment to another), which is where products are typically in use.

Market Perks

In an industry where profit margins are quickly shrinking, designers and builders are always looking for ways to reduce production cost. Key areas of production cost can include the time needed for product research and specifications. Product manufacturers and testing agencies with reliable resources regarding code-compliant building component assemblies and products can potentially reduce the design industry’s bottom line. Additionally, product manufacturers seeking unbiased information through third-party testing may experience increased business for the effort and less potential for litigation.

In part 2 of this series, the Green Builder® Coalition plans on expanding the
concept of manufacturer’s claims and their legal ramifications

Courtesy of The Green Builder Coalition.  The Green Builder Coalition is a not-for-profit association dedicated to amplifying the voice of green builders and professionals to drive advocacy and education for more sustainable home-building practices.

For more information, contact Mike Collignon, Executive Director at mcollignon@greenbuildercoalition.org.

Topics: energy efficiency, sustainable building materials,, Code Watch

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